There’s nothing like a friend’s memorial service to bring on a flood of nostalgia. All the old names, old faces, turning up and presenting themselves as if we’d never taken life’s many detours. Nostalgia—a familiar drug. We can try to walk it off, shake it off, sleep it off—or we can embrace its power, plunge in headlong for its full-strength experience. I haven’t often thought of nostalgia as anything more than longing, but “homesickness” is the word’s first meaning: “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to some past period, place, or irrevocable condition.” Nostalgia is rooted in the Greek nostos, “to return home,” also from old English genesan, “to survive.” We’ve all heard of survivor’s guilt; there’s also “survivor’s longing,” perhaps easily as common.
Yesterday’s memorial to the life of Carrie Hansen in the seaside town of Aptos invoked my longing for not only our cherished friendship but also for the quieter, more spacious places in which we shared time. Her service in the light-filled church that she’d come to love was full of her friends from both the East San Francisco Bay Area, where I first knew her, and Aptos, where she and her husband Howard lived until recently. As a high-school student in Piedmont, I’d found her capacity for befriending people of all generations remarkable. She was thirty years my senior, but, as a volunteer librarian at Piedmont High School, she’d treated me as her peer. Then, coincidentally, she’d moved nearby when I was a college student at UC Santa Cruz, and we’d enjoyed each other’s company over tea in sandwich shops, or burrito dinners at my bungalow, or feasts she prepared seemingly effortlessly in her seaside home.
Carrie lived to 84 despite a diagnosis of multiple myeloma 13 years ago. She’d planned her own memorial service not just once, when she was given only months to live, but also a second time, a decade later. At the service we sang hymns she’d chosen, shared stories about her life, and listened to the ringing of the church bell once for each year of her life. Then, reluctantly, I said good-bye to her family and followed Highway 1 up through Santa Cruz.
Traffic and tourists overrun the town as they have for decades. It hasn’t been a rainy, sleepy, undiscovered place since the 1960s, when one bus per hour ran from downtown to the harbor. Today’s homes and shops were once something else—generally smaller and less flamboyantly painted—and there are now many more of them.
I recognized Carrie in many of the changed geographies. On that corner stood the bistro with little white-clothed tables where she and I shared a bottle of wine to celebrate my graduation. On that road, once rutted and potholed but now well paved and signed, I bicycled to meet her for a movie at a theater that’s now three times its former size. On that beach are scribed the perfectly aligned ripple marks in the sand, here today but not tomorrow, scattered with two-inch, rounded pebbles that she would have noticed and admired. In that fog bank settled the gray overcast that colored our days by the ocean, from which our friendship rarely strayed.
Irrevocable. That’s the nature of passages. Although I don’t want to return to the days of high school or college, I would gladly take up any magic wand that could bring Carrie back for one more beach walk. And I’d happily welcome back the drowsy Santa Cruz we knew and my open-hearted belief that we’ll all have enough time in this life with the people and places we love.
Carrie and I shared a passion for the writing of Ernest Hemingway and his homes, especially the mountains and rivers of Idaho. The words she chose before her death to end her inevitable memorial reflect her abiding understanding of Hemingway’s literary choices, too. We finished her service with a reading of John Donne’s poem, “Meditation XVII.” The lyrical lines connect us to each other as well as invoke the power of place. Carrie’s love for her friends lives in her awareness of the positive overtones of the death-knell: “ . . . any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
I miss Carrie and the lamp she was in my life, and I know there will be no returning to our old homes and old times. As for nostalgia, I’ll ride it out whenever it comes. Homesickness, wistfulness, yearning—they are the price we pay to survive.